Monday, August 2, 2010

Presidential Traverse...aka....Death March report

Mt Madison climb

So what brings a person to do something like this? Well in my case it goes back to February where a group of us had a great idea to run the 50th Mt Washington Road Race. We all put our names into the lottery and formed a “Group” , which we hoped would all but guarantee us entry into the race. Now I’ve run this race 4 times before and at each attempt all I could say at the top was “Get me off this f’n pile of rocks”. So after the lottery was held we looked up our names and found out that we had “won” the lottery. That’s right our names did not get picked so we didn’t have to run up the “Rock Pile”. So what was our big adventure going to be? One of the guys, Tim Smith, comes up with the idea of doing the Presidential Traverse. So 6 of us decided to take up the challenge,

Tim Smith aka Shutter Bug & T-shirt design king
Joe Karner aka Mr. Organization
Ken Rousseau aka Eagle Scout
Keith Spinney aka Trekking pole challenged
Scott Graham aka Better to have it and not need it then to need it and not have it.
Glenn Swanbon aka No Show

So what is the Presidential Traverse? It is a hike (scramble, crawl and fall) across the Presidential mountains in the Mt Washington National Forest. We decided to take the North to South route, starting up at Appalachia on Rt 2 and ending at Crawford Notch on Rt 302 in NH. This trail crosses 9 mountains, over a 20 mile span and has 8500 feet of elevation gain. Now you may be thinking that 20 miles for me should be easy, and you’d be correct if this was what I would consider a normal hike. This was NOT NORMAL!!!!! All the books and web sites that we read about this hike stated that it should take us 14 hours and 10 minutes to complete. For 20 miles? Come on now, back in this groups hay day we could cover that distance in a little over 2 hours and Keith could do it in less than 2 hours. WTF were people doing along the way?

So we started the planning. Joe was our lead man who spent countless hours researching different routes, getting us a place to stay in Woodstock at his sister’s cabin, arranging food, and countless other details. As a group we must have traded 100’s of e-mail on all sorts of details including:

Water purification
Fleece coats
Shoes (we were very obsessive about this)
Food to carry
Escape routes
Car placements
Car pooling
Hike Estimates
Strategy of how to pace ourselves
Who we were going to eat if the going got rough
Getting the 3 day pass from our wives.
Insect repellent
Rain Jackets
Rain Pants
Shoes (there we go again)
First Aid
Parking Passes

We even met as a group at Joe’s house a couple of weeks before to get agreement on the timing, route, and list of things we needed to bring. Were we anal about this? Yes, and for a good reason. All of us had run up Mt Washington and we all found it very tough and the weather to be horrible, and that was on the road!!! We weren’t going to be on any roads and would be longing for one at many points during the hike. We had all hiked together last fall and it was rough on all of us, but this hike had twice the distance, three times the elevation and three times the number of peaks. In addition we would be above tree line for almost 75% of the hike. But we had a plan, an audacious plan. Everything was set.

Keith for several months had warned us that he may need to pull the rip cord once on top of Mt Washington because of his knee. We hoped that he was not going to have to take the escape route we had planned because he was our food if the going got rough. Our first real speck of trouble was with Glenn bowing out a couple of days before. His knee was giving him trouble and he didn’t want to risk the trip. That’s was too bad. Glenn is always good to have on these men’s weekends.

On Thursday four of us (Keith, Joe, Tim and I) meet up at the Visitor Center up on Rt 112 to purchase parking passes and drop cars off at the Appalachian Mountain Clubs parking lots at the Cog rail way (our bail out point) and at Crawford Notch (our final destination). After completing our car shuffle we went over to Joe’s sisters place in Woodstock to make dinner and put together some food for the hike. Soon Ken would show up and Joe cooked us a fine dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. To help pay for our stay we agreed to do some work around the cabin. OMG the work that was planned was to move some rocks to predetermined locations on the property. We were having fun with this but it was back breaking work. We also spend a couple of hours sitting around drinking adult beverages and laughing about past adventures. We all crashed early, 9:30, because the alarm would be sounding at 3:30 AM.

At around 2:30 I was wide awake and went into the living room and just relaxed in the dark. At 3:30 sharp alarms started ringing all over the cabin. Everyone was up and ready to hit the road at 3:45. Not bad. We had pre-made bagel and egg sandwiches the night before and feasted on the ride. We arrive at our starting point at 4:50 AM….NOOOO we are already running 20 minutes behind schedule. By the time we got all of our gear, took pictures and answered Mother Natures call, it was 5:05. We needed to get going. The very last thing we wanted to be doing is hiking off the mountains after dark. So Joe lead our merry band UP. It was still dark and we needed to use head lamps for the first 30 minutes. Come to think of it, I lent one to Keith and I forgot to collect it after the hike. So we started up towards Madison Hut and a good pace. We tried to take it easy but I think we were all a little excited and the pace was quick. We did make a couple of stops along the way so Keith could leave his mark along the trail. We had all dressed light but the effort of going from 1300 feet to 4700 made all of us sweat up a storm. Then the trees opened up and we were at the hut and just about at tree line. The weather was much different. So different, that we all threw on jackets and hats. We decided to leave our packs at the hut and make the final ascent up Mt Madison without the extra weight.

As we started our climb another pair of hikers were right with us. They were experienced and managed the final climb like it was nothing. I on the other hand was nervous and starting to doubt my decision to do this hike. Mt Madison to me is not really a mountain as it is just a big pile of rocks that happened to be stacked up really, really high. As we climbed the wind really started picking up and I was afraid that I was going to loose my Mt Washington road race hat. By the time we hit the top I was physically shaking from fear of falling or getting my leg caught between the rocks and getting injured. The top was nothing more then rocks piled on top of each other. The view was great and we had made it up to the top in 2 hours and 30 minutes, wow that almost 2 hours faster then the hiking books predicted. As I looked over at Mt Washington I could see the auto road. I was longing for that road at this point and will never complain about how steep it is. As we climbed down I really started thinking about turning around and heading right back to the car. I was scared sh@tless as I crab walked back down to Madison hut. This was going to be a lot tougher then I expected. Then it got even tougher!!

After a quick (well almost, we had to wait for Keith to leave his mark in the Madison Hut bathroom), stop we were off to Mt Adams. Now we were above tree line for good and there really isn’t any hiking trails like I’ve known all my life. You know the kind with a nice soft pine needle surface and shady trees. No, this was just a pile of rocks you were walking on and had to focus on every single step or risk injury. To follow the so called trails we had to navigate using cairns, which are pyramid shaped piles of rocks every 100 yards or so that are maintained by the Appalachian Mtn Club. As we looked up Mt Adams we realized that the trail we originally decided to take up was very steep (Airline) so we went around the south sided of the mountain and once again dropped our packs and scrambled up the mountain. Once again the wind was howling and made for an unpleasant stay at the top. Once again I was the last one down the mountain. I was seriously considering heading back to the car once again but Mt Jefferson was next and didn’t look to bad. Boy was I wrong.

As we approached Jefferson, the trail went straight UP. Now we were climbing nearly vertical and were having trouble locating the next cairn. It was so tough that we took a break half way up. Once we hit the top we got socked in with some clouds and couldn't really see a thing. And of course the wind was killing us. This was supposed to be fun….NOT!!! I was suffering and couldn’t believe we were only 1/3 of the way done. The only good thing about Jefferson was the route we took made the decent was much easier.

Mt Clay was next. This is a small peak, in fact it’s not really considered a mountain because there is not enough elevation gain, but it did get our heart rates up.

Now comes the high point in the route, Mt Washington, standing at 6288 feet, which is 5000 feet higher then we started. As we looked up at the “Rock Pile” we could see that it was socked in with clouds, so our views weren’t going to be too good. But as we looked across the mountain range that we still needed to cover we could see that the 2nd half of our hike was going to be “relatively” easier then the first half. Yeah right!! We started are ascent. Joe took it out hard with Keith and I in fast pursuit. Tim and Ken were taking it a little easier. When we hit the Cog Rail we decided to just skirt the tracks and jump the auto road for the final 100 feet of climbing. Joe set a pace that I could not hold and was first on top. I was 2nd and Keith was DFL. Tim and Ken decided to stay on the trail and summitted shortly after us. The top was packed with people who had either drove up or took the Cog…what a bunch of wimps!!! I’ve now been to the top 5 times and always made it under my own power. We all grabbed a bite to eat. In my case I ended up eating my 5th peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We refilled our water bottles and headed out.

We were searching for the Crawford Path down and saw a sign for it. We headed in that direction and after making one small detour we were on the right path, jumping from boulder to boulder. The wind was 50+ miles an hour and the temperature was in the mid 30’s. Nice summer weather we were having.

Our next target was Mt Monroe, by way of Lakes of the Clouds Hut. We did a quick stop at the hut and off we went up Monroe. This was difficult but nothing compared to Madison, Adams and Jefferson.

Then on to Franklin. Once again not to bad. With 7 done we were off to Eisenhower. From a distance this didn’t look to bad but as we finally reached its’ base we realized that we had some work cut out for us. This peak required us to do some real climbing up very steep paths but once we had about 200 feet of vertical left the trail was easy and even had log steps in places to make our footing much more consistent. Once again great views with high winds. At this point Ken was starting to Bonk and while we waited for him Keith suggested that we help lighten Ken’s load by each of use taking some of the contents of his pack. Then someone pointed out that this seemed like an Obama deal where we were all going to carry the load for someone else. It sounded really funny then but we were all very tired. This must have been the yuppie mountain, because there were even log ladders in sections. 8 down 1 to go.

Mt Pierce was the last on our trek and was kind of a let down. This peak is not above the tree line and it was tough to tell when you reached the top. Any way we were done…WRONG!!!

Now the toughest part of the hike was about to occur. We had been hiking for 17+ miles and only had 3.1 miles to go. But all 3.1 miles were down hill, and it wasn’t on a smooth pine needle path. Once again we had to step from rock to rock. Now this wasn’t a race but Keith had poked fun at me all day long about this so I figured I’d make sure I got down off the mountain before he did. I led the group and set a fast pace. I was on a mission. I quick stepped and even jogged in places to try and get down as quickly as possible. After about 2 miles I noticed that I was starting to bonk, but I just ignored it and kept pushing. Finally after 1.5 hours I finished the 3.1 mile trek down. The only problem was I popped out on Rt 302 and not at the parking lot which was about ½ mile away. DAM!!! Now I was running UP 302 back to the parking lot. Thankfully l got back to my car before Keith arrived. I won!!! We ended up taking 13 hours and 30 minutes with breaks. No speed record but we did beat book time.

Soon, Joe showed up followed by Keith then Tim and the guy who really toughed it out, Ken. Now we had to play the car shuffle. The 5 of us got in my van then dropped Keith, Joe and Tim off at the Cog to get Keith’s car. Ken and I headed up and picked up his car, and then we headed back to the cabin. 2 hours after finishing the hike we were finally taking a shower. Did that ever feel good!!

After cleaning up it was time to head into town (Woodstock) for a victory dinner. We ended up at Truant’s and filled ourselves with cold drinks and fine food.

Will I do this hike again? NO, NO, NEVER, NO MORE!!! But I’ve said that about a lot of things in my life.

Today is Monday and my legs have had 2 full days of rest and my quads are still in pain. WTF!!!

Next year I’ll suggest something like a whale watch or really go nut and take a garden tour.